Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asiaby Philip Shishkin
It sounds like the stuff of a fiction thriller: two revolutions, a massacre of unarmed civilians, a civil war, a drug-smuggling highway, brazen corruption schemes, contract hits, and larger-than-life characters who may be villains . . . or heroes . . . or possibly both. Yet this book is not a work of fiction. It is instead a gripping, firsthand account of… See more details below
It sounds like the stuff of a fiction thriller: two revolutions, a massacre of unarmed civilians, a civil war, a drug-smuggling highway, brazen corruption schemes, contract hits, and larger-than-life characters who may be villains . . . or heroes . . . or possibly both. Yet this book is not a work of fiction. It is instead a gripping, firsthand account of Central Asia’s unfolding history from 2005 to the present.
Philip Shishkin, a prize-winning journalist with extensive on-the-ground experience in the tumultuous region above Afghanistan’s northern border, focuses mainly on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Both nations have struggled with the enormous challenges of post-Soviet independent statehood; both became entangled in America’s Afghan campaign when U.S. military bases were established within their borders. At the same time, the region was developing into a key smuggling hub for Afghanistan’s booming heroin trade. Through the eyes of local participants—the powerful and the powerless—Shishkin reconstructs how Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have ricocheted between extreme repression and democratic strivings, how alliances with the United States and Russia have brought mixed blessings, and how Stalin’s legacy of ethnic gerrymandering incites conflict even now.
"Shishkin shines as a reporter in his description of Kyrgyzstan's fresh change of regime. Skillfully weaving together many competing accounts of what happened, he provides the most coherent explanation of the forces behind the revolution and those who were responsible for the acts of ethnic violence committed in its wake. . . As an introduction to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan's complicated recent history, and more importantly as a primer on Kyrgyzstan's dynamic and often confounding politics, Shishkin unquestionably succeeds. "—Joshua Foust, Foreign Policy
"Absorbing. . . [Shishkin] succeeds, not by trying to provide a definitive or analytical account, but through an investigative eye for detail, probing interviews, biting wit. . .Compelling. . . [A] fine book."—Alexander Cooley, Quartz
"Shishkin's book reads like a novel but is the stuff of hard-won journalism. Central Asia finally gets the treatment it damn well deserves."—Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan
"'The Stans'—as the far-off states of Central Asia are known in the White House, remain a lost world. But few of the old Soviet lands have fallen farther, or faster, amid plagues both ancient and modern: militant Islam, secular greed, a surging heroin trade, civil war, revolution and throughout it all the rule of dictatorships. Throw in the Pentagon's hunger for a staging ground to take on the Taliban, and you've got a dark maze. Thankfully, Philip Shishkin illuminates this tale with uncommon skill. Whether curious tourists or students of 21st-century geopolitics, readers would be hard-pressed to find a better guide."—Andrew Meier, author of Black Earth: A Journey through Russia after the Fall
"This book offers an excellent account of everyday life in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, as well as very personal and highly nuanced depictions of some of the most important individuals behind the political changes in the region."—Erica Marat, Eurasia Expert, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program
"You'll finish the book with a greater understanding of Central Asia and the feeling that you yourself have been on a journey that you'll never forget, and made some friends along the way. Shishkin's writing evokes John Le Carre crossed with Raymond Chandler and the result is a mesmerizing read."—Jake Adelstein, author of Tokyo Vice
"This one's a thriller . . . . Given the complex relations we have had in Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan, and the other Central Asian republics since the war in Afghanistan began, when we greatly expanded and added to our military bases in these countries, and given the ongoing tensions throughout the region, this guide to recent (and longer term) history is an exciting and absorbing contribution."—LA Review of Books on KCRW
"A fast-paced, intricate and humanistic work of reportage."—Asian Review of Books
"Philip Shishkin's journalistic account of modern Central Asia is . . . an accessible introduction. . . . Sharp and entertaining. . . . [The stories] are vigorous and bold."—Wall Street Journal
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Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia
By Philip Shishkin
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2013 Philip Shishkin
All rights reserved.
The Tulip Revolution
When the end came, all that was left to do was swig the president's wine straight from the bottle and plunder his collection of neckties.
The president, soon to be former, was already gone, and his spacious wood-paneled office on the seventh floor of a labyrinthine slab of government headquarters was now a scene of chaotic celebration. The foot soldiers of the revolution, many of them young and covered with grime and a little banged up but delirious with joy and adrenaline, swarmed around the president's desk and took turns sitting in his chair. Until a few hours earlier, this had been nothing less than a king's throne, but now it was just a fancy office chair where a commoner could recline, kick up his feet, grin into the camera, and pretend for a brief moment to be president. Until he was shoved aside by another protester eager to do the same.
"Who wants some wine?" a young man said to no one in particular. In each hand, he held a bottle of French wine that he'd just pulled from the president's cabinet.
"Look, this is Askar's tie!" said another man, a kid, really, pointing at his own chest, where a silky piece of presidential neckwear dangled haphazardly over a T-shirt. "Holy shit!"
Askar was Askar Akayev, the president of Kyrgyzstan, a small Central Asian nation that had never been an independent state until the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years earlier. The empire's fall released the Kyrgyz from centuries of foreign dominion and made them masters of their own destiny. And what a ride it had been.
Independence began, as if often does, with a surge of euphoria and pride. An optical physicist by training, Akayev cruised to the presidency amid popular demonstrations cheering the historic moment. With the curved, bald rise of his bowling ball of a head fringed by a wreath of black curls, Akayev projected a measured, professorial, soft demeanor. His early governing style earned Kyrgyzstan the unlikely distinction of being a display window of Central Asian democracy, a Switzerland of the East. The Alpine comparison ended with the mountains that both countries possess in abundance. Kyrgyzstan was poor and rural, and Akayev's good intentions got bulldozed by nepotism and corruption.
Despite its small size, Kyrgyzstan started playing a big role in international affairs. To manage and resupply the military campaign in nearby Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, the United States needed an air base in the region, and Akayev jumped at the chance to raise his country's profile and earn some cash in the process. Ignoring grumbles from Russia and neighboring China, both leery of American soldiers camped in their backyard, Akayev allowed the United States to set up a sprawling military base on the edge of Bishkek's international airport. The base became the main transit point for troops bound for Afghanistan. And it added yet another layer to Kyrgyzstan's fat onion of corruption, intrigue, and geopolitical games that would dog the country for years.
And now, on the afternoon of March 24, 2005, Akayev was on the run toward Moscow, fleeing an uprising whose danger to his rule he so blithely underestimated. Meanwhile, things were getting a little tense in his old office. Some employees of the presidential administration hung back on the seventh floor, watching in shock as protesters surged into the president's old digs and made themselves comfortable.
"You are wearing a fancy jacket, but your president is nothing!" one protester shouted to a woman who stood in the anteroom in a huddle of junior government officials. She wore a light leather jacket of no discernible luxury.
The government employees stuck around partly out of curiosity and partly out of a vague sense of duty. They hadn't expected events to unfold at such a rapid clip. And neither did the revolutionaries. That morning, protest leaders had still planned to pitch tents in front of the presidential palace for an indefinite sit-in. Instead, they were now wandering, a little dazed, through the dark hallways of the trashed palace.
"But he is my president!" the woman in the allegedly fancy jacket was saying.
"Let's take her out of the room," someone suggested. Then everyone forgot about her; too many other exciting things were going on.
Someone knocked over a statue of a camel, and it lay broken into several pieces on the intricately inlaid parquet floor. On the president's bookshelf, next to works by Gogol and Proust, I saw one of Akayev's own rambling opuses. It was called The Greatness of My People.
"This is such a mess!" said Evgenii Razinkin, who introduced himself as a member of the presidential honor guard. He wore a military uniform and appeared to be in his midtwenties. He was unarmed. "We had enough bullets here to kill thousands," Razinkin said. "But we gave our oath to the people, to the constitution, not to the president."
Before fleeing the palace, Akayev told his underlings not to open fire on the protesters. Though his flight was later cast as a final act of cowardice, there's no denying that Akayev helped avoid bloodshed by removing his much-despised physical self from the scene and obviating the need for his guards to defend him.
"Had he stayed, his guards would have had to shoot to kill," said Chingiz, a man in a dark suit who claimed to work for the government's economic department but whose calm, watchful presence suggested he had some security connections to the old order. As years went by and much more violent things happened in Kyrgyzstan, the president's order not to shoot would become his biggest achievement. Slinking away quietly and not killing his compatriots, Akayev became a hero by dint of not being a villain.
Back in his old office, the ragtag group of revolutionary foot soldiers swelled to include some protest leaders. Among them I saw Tursunbek Akun, a slight, perpetually animated man who'd participated in so many anti-Akayev rallies that he maintained a large collection of ripped pants as mementos of tussles with riot police. In the months before the revolution, he shot to fame by claiming to have been kidnapped in circumstances and by people he could not describe because of the onset of temporary amnesia. Even fellow opposition activists didn't know what to make of his story. Akun acknowledged that many people thought "I kidnapped myself," which, he said, wasn't true. Akun would eventually become Kyrgyzstan's perennial human-rights ombudsman. But for now, he jostled with others for a chance to sit briefly in the president's chair, his head topped with a tall felt hat.
Chingiz the economist watched all of this in quiet bemusement from a few feet away. "You see how many new leaders have piled in here?" he finally said. "Tomorrow they'll rip one another's throats out."
According to legend, the Kyrgyz were asleep when God was distributing lands to the peoples of the Earth. When the Kyrgyz woke up landless, they pleaded with God to give them at least something. God took pity on the hapless Kyrgyz and gave them a patch of land that he had initially planned to keep for himself. And you can see why. It is a beautiful piece of real estate crisscrossed by mountain ranges. Landlocked on China's western flank, the territory of modern-day Kyrgyzstan zigzags in the midst of three other post-Soviet Central Asian republics, swerving around a large blue dot that appears on maps in the shape of a tear. The dot is Lake Issyk-Kul, a sea-sized freshwater oasis sitting in a basin ringed by mountains.
Sometime in the seventh or eighth century—the exact dates are obscure in the foggy confluence of history and myth—a warrior named Manas united the Kyrgyz in a rebellion against the tribes of modern-day China. Kyrgyzstan hasn't been the same since.
The endless battles and skirmishes, embroidered with monsters, magic, and, of course, fair maidens, are chronicled in the Heroic Epic Manas. Part history, part foundation myth, part rumination on good and evil, and part national liberation tract, the epic defines Kyrgyzstan in a way that no single work of literature dominates the collective psyche of any other country.
Befitting its stature, the epic is long, about five hundred thousand lines of verse. Manas is longer than other famously voluminous historical epics: Greece's Iliad and Odyssey, and India's Mahabharata. For centuries, Manas wasn't written down, existing only in the oral recitations performed by traditional bards. These Manaschi speak the lines in a singsong rapping style, and the best are reputed to have committed the whole thing to memory. The bards often trace the origins of their talent to mystical dreams in which Manas himself or his associates offered encouragement.
In one scene in the epic, Manas exhorts his followers to reclaim lands that once belonged to their ancestors but were now in the hands of the Kitai tribes from modern-day China:
Letting Kitai control them now, We have besmirched our honor, I vow! Can a chopper in rock make a dent? Break a huge stone where blows are spent?
A few lines down, Manas tells his people not to be intimidated by the stronger enemy and not to fear death: "There's birth, and there's death." He says nothing of taxes.
Trusting in their numbers alone, How those Kitais make others groan! You have seen this with your own eyes. Free your feet from fetters, and rise!
Though the epic is more than a thousand years old, Manas weaves a web of immediacy over modern-day Kyrgyzstan, lending his name to countless places, and his mystical grandeur to political ambitions. In 2002, President Akayev wrote a book titled Kyrgyz Statehood and the People's Epic Manas. In it, the professorial president teased out "seven lessons of Manas" key to modern governance. In Lesson 7, he declared Kyrgyzstan to be "a country of human rights."
After Akayev fled the country, his successor was cast as the nation's great democratic hope. He clung to the job for five bad years—until he too was overthrown and chased out of Kyrgyzstan. Shortly before his own downfall, the successor tried to wrap himself in Manas's cloak in a strange episode that pitted the Kyrgyz against China again.
In 2009, the United Nations' cultural arm inscribed the epic Manas into something called the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. That would be fine—except Manas was nominated by the Chinese, the same hated Kitais whom Manas had spent his life fighting. China said it acted on behalf of a small Kyrgyz minority living within its borders. But in Kyrgyzstan the news was interpreted as theft of a national treasure by a giant neighbor. A discussion on who dropped the ball ensued on the front pages of Kyrgyz newspapers.
One afternoon in Bishkek, I went to see Sadyk Sher-Niyaz in his lime green, Mac-studded office at Kyrgyz Film, the state movie studio. A former currency trader turned director, Sher-Niyaz launched a foundation to support the art of the bards who recite the Manas opus. SherNiyaz was working on a cartoon version of the epic, large chunks of which he said he knew by heart. He wore a red shirt, and his cascading hair and doughy face evoked an older Elvis. Sher-Niyaz was furious about China's move on Manas. "Imagine if we took ethnic Germans in Kyrgyzstan and declared the works of Goethe to be a Kyrgyz masterpiece? Or if we found some Jews here and presented Torah as the masterpiece of Kyrgyzstan?"
Equally incensed on behalf of his compatriots, the Kyrgyz president tried to claw Manas back from the Kitais. He submitted to Parliament a bill "concerning the Epic Manas." Ominously, the bill obligated Kyrgyzstan to "defend its interests in connection with the Epic Manas, both at home and abroad." A week later, the president was overthrown. Sher-Niyaz saw a connection. After the UN fiasco, "everything went haywire," he told me. "The spirit of Manas was disturbed, and there you go, this is what happens."
More recently, the Kyrgyz took Manas worship to new extremes. The epic hero was dragooned into the service of Kyrgyz nationalism as a new crop of leaders sought to fortify the country's wobbly statehood and identity shaken by a succession of uprisings and violent clashes.
In 2011, in a curious move bordering on absurdity, the government ordered the demolition of Kyrgyzstan's statue of liberty, a winged woman erected on Bishkek's central square to celebrate the country's independence. Workmen cut down this symbol of freedom and replaced it with an equestrian bronze statue of Manas in a helmet, his robe fluttering behind him. Never mind that another Manas on a horse had been sitting on a nearby street for years.
Not to be outdone, local authorities plunked down their own Manas statue in Osh, the country's southern hub where the Kyrgyz had only recently fought with the Uzbek ethnic minority, for whom Manas either means nothing at all or stands as a symbol of Kyrgyz militancy. Osh leaders bragged that their Manas is the tallest equestrian statue anywhere in the former Soviet Union.
It doesn't stop there. In 2012, yet another Kyrgyz president visited Moscow and unveiled yet another Manas statue in the Russian capital's Friendship Park, the first Manas monument on foreign soil. As dignitaries pulled a ceremonial orange veil from the monument, the horseman that emerged featured grotesquely short legs. The steep price tag of the statue prompted wags to wonder whether the poor Central Asian nation was really in a position to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a bowlegged horseman abroad.
At the unveiling of the monument, the new Kyrgyz president stunned his compatriots further by announcing that Manas had been an ethnic Russian, an unorthodox interpretation of Manas's genes considering his centrality to the Kyrgyz national identity. Having mobilized to wrest Manas from China a few years earlier, the Kyrgyz now watched their new leader voluntarily hand him over to Russia.
In a meeting with the Russian president, the Kyrgyz head of state said he hoped to build yet another Manas statue in Siberia, to further "bind our two peoples together." The Russian said, "Let's do it!" One wonders if the Americans could jump into the Manas free-for-all and claim him as their own, based on his connection to the Manas Transit Center, as the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan is officially known. Since Manas is a figure of myth as much as of history, he can be whatever you want him to be. And of course there can never be too much Manas.
A small nomadic people, the Kyrgyz have always lived in the shadow of bigger powers. They wandered into their new Central Asian homeland sometime in the ninth century from the banks of the Yenisei River in southern Siberia. At the time, Central Asia was a chaotic agglomeration of rival Turkic, Mongol, and Persian tribes, shifting alliances, and campaigns of territorial expansion. In their new environment, the Kyrgyz didn't hesitate to make their presence known. They briefly conquered and laid waste to a nearby Uighur kingdom, but eventually fell under the sway of the rising Mongol empire that blazed its way through much of Eurasia.
Other suzerains followed, until it was Russia's turn to invade and rule Central Asia in an unbroken stretch that began in the second half of the nineteenth century, survived the Communist revolution in Russia, and lasted until 1991. It was a classic colonial land grab. The Russian empire needed access to natural resources and to new markets. The plains of Central Asia, especially modern-day Uzbekistan, were ideally suited to growing cotton, and Russian colonial administrators increased production dramatically. Russian settlers began to arrive in the region in droves. They included imperial engineers, construction workers, teachers, clergymen, farmers, and soldiers. The conquest of Central Asia coincided in time with a momentous social shift within Russia itself. By imperial decree of 1861, the czar abolished agricultural slavery, better known as serfdom, which had been the bedrock of Russia's economy for centuries. Some of the newly freed serfs headed to Central Asia in search of a new life and new land.
In Bishkek one day, I met an elderly Russian man whose great-grandparents had been Russian serfs. Free but landless, his ancestors and their neighbors received parcels of land on the shores of Lake Issyk-Kul. They moved from the Russian heartland to the outer edge of the empire, building a new village that resembled the old one down to the street names. Such resettlement created tensions with the Kyrgyz, who saw their historical pastureland being transformed into farmland for Russian peasants. Unlike the British, Spanish, and Portuguese empires, which sought colonies across continents and oceans, the Russian empire expanded contiguously overland, like an ink stain on blotting paper.
In his waning years on the throne, the Russian czar scrambled for warm bodies to dispatch to the trenches of World War I, and imperial enforcers pressed newly subjugated Kyrgyz nomads into military service. Kyrgyz men saw no reason why they should leave their families to fight a remote, brutal, and irrelevant war and quite possibly die—all because some Russian guy on a throne said they must. They rebelled. They objected again when the Soviets, who inherited the czarist empire, herded them onto collective farms, a concept nearly as alien to them as trench warfare in Europe. Many died of starvation and disease.
Excerpted from Restless Valley by Philip Shishkin. Copyright © 2013 by Philip Shishkin. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Philip Shishkin was an award-winning staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal. A fellow at the Asia Society, he is now a freelance writer based in Beijing.
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